One-Way Ticket Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series


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The Migration Series

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twenty-three years old, completed a series of sixty paintings about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. Lawrence’s work is a landmark in the history of modern art and a key example of the way that history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era. Explore the social and cultural nuances of each of the sixty panels in Lawrence’s series here.

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During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.

During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.

  • 1941 caption
  • 1993 caption
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    Two sets of captions accompany Lawrence’s Migration Series: the original 1941 texts and a revised version he wrote in 1993 for a tour of the series organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. Click on each date to compare the two.


Lawrence opens his sixty-panel series with this image of a chaotic crowd in a train station pushing toward three ticket windows marked CHICAGO, NEW YORK, and ST. LOUIS. Images of train stations, railroad cars, waiting rooms, and passengers weighed down by bags recur throughout the Migration Series; as they do so they provide a metric marker of time that is not unlike the rhythmic sound of the moving train. Each of this trio of cities is the subject of a chapter of Emmett J. Scott’s Negro Migration during the War (1920), one of the first scholarly efforts to come to grips with the huge demographic shifts spurred by the Great Migration. “They left as if they were fleeing some curse,” he writes. Negro Migration during the War was one of the pivotal books that Lawrence read in his extensive preparatory research for his series at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. He returned to Scott’s study again and again, often drawing from the author’s research to create his captions.


The three cities named in this panel were key destinations for the hundreds of thousands of black southerners who left their homes in search of greater economic opportunity and social equality in the North. This mass exodus, known as the Great Migration, led to one of the greatest demographic transformations in United States history. Between the beginning of the twentieth century and 1970, more than six million African Americans moved from the overwhelmingly rural South to the cities of the North, West, and Midwest. As these populations reinvented themselves as urban and northern, the nation’s profile was fundamentally altered, as were the composition of its cities, political priorities, and cultural expressions, from music to literature to food.


Besides New York, Chicago received the most migrants of any American city and subsequently thrived as a center of African-American culture. At the turn of the twentieth century, black residents made up less than two percent of the population, but between 1910 and 1920 their numbers swelled by one hundred and fifty percent. Many of the new arrivals moved to a part of the city’s South Side dubbed Bronzeville by the local black press. 

  • Bronzeville section of Chicago, 1941

St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri, was the endpoint of several railroad lines from Mississippi, making it a stopping point for many migrants and one of the first cities to be dramatically altered by the Migration. Racial tension, spurred by white resentment over competition for jobs, quickly escalated there and in East St. Louis, located directly across the river in Illinois. The bitterness led to the East St. Louis Riots of 1917, one of the worst explosions of racially-motivated violence in United States history. More than three hundred homes and buildings in black neighborhoods were burned, and the National Association of Colored People estimated that between one hundred and two hundred African Americans were killed.

  • The Broadway Opera House in the burned district of East St. Louis following the riot on July 2, 1917

New York

A major flourishing of the arts followed the initial influx of migrants to New York. By 1920, two-thirds of the city’s African-American population lived in Harlem, where native New Yorkers mixed with European and Caribbean immigrants and new arrivals from the South. A new generation of writers, artists, and activists ushered in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Savoy Ballroom, one of the neighborhood’s many nightlife spots, opened in 1926 and catered to an integrated crowd. It was located on Lenox Avenue, which poet Langston HughesCelebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration Read more called the “Heartbeat of Harlem.”

  • The Savoy Ballroom, Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, Harlem, New York, c. 1950


The stories of the Great Migration were told in many forms, including novels, paintings, and memoirs. One of the genres touched most indelibly by this phenomenon was the blues; through song, musicians spun tales of hardship and hope, speaking both to the privations of life in the South and the ache of leaving home. In “Northbound Blues” (1925), one of the earliest recorded songs about the migration, singer and pianist Maggie Jones tells of leaving the South:

Going North child, where I can be free
Where there’s no hardships, like in Tennessee

Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Don’t have to work there, like in Arkansas

Audio Player
Maggie Jones, “Northbound Blues” (Columbia Records, 1925)

Ragtime musician Arthur “Blind” Blake recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” in 1928. The lyrics speak optimistically of job prospects in the North, specifically of those at the Ford Motor Company, then the largest employer of African Americans in the auto industry.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob

I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face

Poetry was another crucial art form of the Migration, and Langston HughesCelebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration Read more was one of its greatest practitioners. In “Bound No’th Blues” (1926), he suggests the traditional blues form, using rhyme, repetition, and rhythm to set a mood of forward movement.

Langston Hughes
Bound No’th Blues

Goin’ down the road, Lawd,
Goin’ down the road.
Down the road, Lawd,
Way, way down the road.
Got to find somebody
To help me carry this load.

Road’s in front o’ me,
Nothin’ to do but walk.
Road’s in front of me,
Walk…an’ walk…an’ walk.
I’d like to meet a good friend
To come along an’ talk.

Hates to be lonely,
Lawd, I hates to be sad.
Says I hates to be lonely,
Hates to be lonely an’ sad,
But ever friend you finds seems
Like they try to do you bad.

Road, road, road, O!
Road, road…road…road, road!
Road, road, road, O!
On the no’thern road.
These Mississippi towns ain’t
Fit fer a hoppin’ toad.

Hughes continued to explore the theme of migration in later poems such as “One Way Ticket” (1949), in which the narrator conjures deep sadness and regret at being forced to “pick up” and “take” his life elsewhere, as though it were an object easily moved. Hughes, inspired by the thematic overlap between the Migration Series and his own work, asked Lawrence to illustrate the poem for a 1949 volume.

Langston Hughes
One-Way Ticket

I pick up my life
And take it with me
And I put it down in
Chicago, Detroit,
Buffalo, Scranton,
Any place that is 
North and East—
And not Dixie.

I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is 
North and West—
And not South.

I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.

I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket—
Gone up North,
Gone out West,

Audio Player
Langston Hughes reading "One-Way Ticket" in 1962